Changing departments – the pros and cons of being away from home discipline(s)

Last weekend, I updated my Linkedin page to indicate that I’ve now completed the move between departments at UCL – from the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geomatic Engineering to the Department of Geography. It’s not just me – the Extreme Citizen Science group will be now based at the Department of Geography.

With this move, I’m closing a circle of 20 years – in September 1997 I came to the Department of Geography at UCL to start my PhD studies at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (At the time, CASA was an inter-departmental centre with links to the Bartlett, Geography, and Geomatic Engineering). At the end of my PhD studies, in 2001, after four years of self-funding the PhD by working as a sysadmin in Geography, research assistant in CASA, and few other things, I was looking for opportunities to stay in London for a while.

Today, the plight of EU academics in the UK due to Brexit is a regular feature in the news. In a similar way, as a non-EU person, I had to take into account that every job that I’m applying to will require organising job permit, and consider how long it will last. This ‘silent’ part of the academic experience that was there for many people is becoming common knowledge, but that’s another story…

With that in mind, I have applied to quite a diverse range of jobs – and finding myself shortlisted at urban planning at MIT, Geography at Leicester, Geography at LSE, Geography at the Hebrew University (where I’ve done my BSc and MA), and Geomatic Engineering at UCL, in addition to management consultancy, and a GIS software company. The MIT, LSE and the commercial jobs weren’t successful, and Leicester offer came too early in the write-up process. In the end, UCL Geomatic Engineering materialised at the right time and this is where I ended.

I found myself staying at the department (including its merger with Civil and Environmental Engineering) for 15 years until it became clear that it is time to move because an incompatibility between the direction that my research evolved and the focus of the department. I did consider staying within the faculty of Engineering – some of my work is linked to computer science, and to interaction with geographical technologies which is related to Human-Computer Interaction, but it felt just as incompatible – after all, most of my work is appearing in journals and conferences that are not valued by computer scientists but by geographers. It was good to discover that my interest in moving to the Department of Geography was welcomed, and now the process is complete. So what have I learned in these 15 years of being a geographer (geographical information scientist) in a civil engineering department? and what reflections do I have about being a researcher of one discipline but having an academic position in another?

Straddling fences

Let’s start from my own position – Nadine Schuurman & Mike Goodchild interview from 1998:

NS Some of the human geographers have partially built their careers upon writing critiques of GIS. How meaningful is participation in these debates for people in GIS?
MG Quite meaningful for geographers interested in GIS. If I were advising a new graduate student on how to succeed in geography these days, my advice would be to try to straddle that fence. It wouldn’t be to come down on either side of it because you have to be able to talk to the rest of the discipline and yet you have to be able to use the technology (Schuurman 1998, emphasis added)

This matched also recommendations that I received before starting my PhD, and my own interest from previous studies in linking social aspects in the environment and society interface with GIS and technology. During my PhD, I was lucky to be linked to three areas of studies at UCL – CASA, with its focus on GIS, computer modelling and visualisation, the Environment and Society Research Unit (ESRU) in Geography, and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Usability Engineering expertise in the department of Computer Science. The result was that my PhD thesis had both a technical part, as well as social-theoretical part. It also demonstrated in papers that I wrote collaboratively during the PhD – for example, a technical paper about the use of agent-based modelling, was followed by a social theoretical paper about the methodological individualism that is embedded in the models at the time.

The technical part of my academic identity was part of the reason that Geomatic Engineering accepted me, and at least at the beginning I tried to fit in – e.g. by directing my attention to technical aspects of GIS data and processing representations and supervising a PhD on 3D data storage. However, participatory aspects of GIS continue to interest me – so I seized opportunities to develop this area. For example, once I heard about OpenStreetMap, I directed my research effort towards it, or when I learned about London 21 Sustainability Network effort to create a London Green Map, I offered help and designed MSc projects to support it. Since 2007, my research became more concentrated on participatory mapping and citizen science. As a result, the work that is linked to geomatic engineering (i.e. surveying, precise measurements, photogrammetry) shrank, as well as relationships with other areas of work in the department, this eventually led to where I am now.

Considering that I have found myself as an interdisciplinary researcher in a department that is completely outside either my ‘home’ disciplines (either Geography or Computer Science), had benefits and challenges.

Benefits

The most important benefit, which eventually paid off, was the disciplinary freedom. While at the point of promotion applications, or specific evaluators for a research applications and such, I did provide a list of people who relate to my area of work (Geographic Information Science), on the day to day work I was not judged by disciplinary practices. Shortly after securing the lectureship, Paul Longley introduced me to the 3Ps – Publications, Pounds (grant money), and PhD students as criteria that you should pay attention to in terms of career development. Because of my involvement with London Technology Network, I’ve learned about the fourth P – Patents (as in wider impacts). With this insight in mind, I was aware that around me, people cannot evaluate my research on its merit so they will check these general matrices, and as long as they are there, it does not necessarily matter what I do. This freedom provided the scope to develop the combination of technology development which is embedded in social science research which I enjoy doing.

Disciplines do set which journals you should publish in, what conferences you’re expected to present in, and similar aspects of an academic career. Being outside a discipline means that I could publish sometimes in computer science (my top cited paper) and sometime in geography and urban studies (my second top cited paper). Noticeably, I don’t have a single publication in a pure geomatic engineering journal. This allowed for exploring different directions of research that if I was inside a disciplinary department, I would not necessarily be able to do.

The second important benefit was to learn how to communicate with engineers and people who do not see the research from the same perspective as you. Because I was in an engineering department, I was applying to the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (the categorisation of my research on EPSRC website are interesting – and I know that they are not what I entered to the system!) and that meant that I needed to think about the reasons that someone who reviews my applications or judges them on a panel will see the benefits from their perspective. I had to learn how to think about structuring research applications, or submissions to REF so they are convincing and relevant to the reader – there was no point in going over the philosophy of technology reasons for researching VGI because this does not help in convincing the reader that my research is worth funding. Highlighting the technical advances and the potential for wider societal impact was more important.

Third, the position that I found myself in was pushing my interdisciplinary understanding further. Not only I had to get used to the engineering mindset and support engineering education (to a very minor extent), I also was in a position that I was doing participatory action research but within an engineering department, which made it more palatable for various researchers in the natural sciences and engineering to approach me while applying for funding. They needed a “safe” person to carry out a participatory part of a wider research project, and I guess that being based in an engineering department made it look this way.  Over the years, I had discussions if the group that I led can be considered as “social scientists” on a project, because of the departmental affiliation. I found it puzzling, but I guess that for reviewers who look less at the details of each applicant’s background, and used to look at affiliations, this worked.

Downsides

The most obvious downside of being out of a disciplinary department is the issue of resources – this was frustrating while also understandable. Many requests for resources, such as appointing a lecturer in my area, were turned down. Throughout the whole period, the activities that I was carrying out were interesting, or even one that worth highlighting at a departmental level from time to time. When it came to the hard decisions on investment and resource allocation, the activities were not part of the core mission of the department and therefore not fundable. This left me with a continual need for bootstrapping and figuring out ways to secure resources.

The second downside is a version of the imposter syndrome that I started calling  “the hypocrite syndrome”. This is the downside of the communication across disciplines (and therefore epistemologies and ontologies) that I mentioned above. It is the feeling that while what drives the research is a social theory, the process of writing an application is about dampening it and emphasising technical aspects. A good example for this is in my paper about data quality of OpenStreetMap – if you read carefully the paper, it’s fairly obvious that my main reason to carry out quality assessment is so I can have a measure that will help me to show the social justice aspect of the project. Most of the papers that cite this work take it as a paper about data quality. It was a useful way of developing my research, but it doesn’t make you feel that you have provided a holistic description of what your aims are.

A third downside is the additional effort that was required to keep in touch with the development of the discussions in your home disciplines – I frequently went to geography conferences and followed the literature on HCI and computer science, but this is not a replacement for attending regular departmental seminars or even noticing discussions during departmental meetings, that keep you up to date with the general development. In Geography, I was lucky to be on the board for a leading journal (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers) for about 5 years, and that provided another way to keep in touch and learn about the discipline.

Overall, I don’t regret the decision to go for an engineering department. The journey was interesting, I have learned a lot through it, and have developed my academic career this way. In hindsight, it did work well. What will happen next? I don’t know – I’ll probably need to reflect in 5 years what were the impacts of joining a disciplinary department…

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UCL Synergies podcast – Congo Citizen Science

The “UCL Synergies podcasts” is series of interviews with researchers who are working on a shared problem from two disciplinary perspective. It is part of the activities to demonstrate how UCL addresses the grand challenges. The series itself is an excellent  demonstration of the issues that come up in interdisciplinary research and you can find it here

As part of this series, Jerome Lewis and I had a conversation with Sue Nelson on our work. The podcast is about 10 minutes,  and you can listen to it here.

Has GIScience Lost its Interdisciplinary Mojo?

The GIScience conference is being held every two years since 2000, and it is one of the main conferences in the field of Geographic Information Science (GIScience). It is a special honour to be invited to give a keynote talk, and so I was (naturally) very pleased to get an invitation to deliver such a talk in the conference this year. The title of my talk is ‘Has GIScience Lost its Interdisciplinary Mojo?’ and I’m providing here the synopsis of the talk, with the slides.

My own career is associated with GIScience very strongly. In 1992, as I was studying for my undergraduate studies with a determination to specialise in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) by combining computer science and geography degrees, I was delighted to discover that such studies fall within a new field called GIScience. The paper by Mike Goodchild that announced the birth of the field was a clear signal that this was an area that was not only really interesting, but also one with potential for growth and prospects for an academic career, which was very encouraging. This led to me to a Masters degree which combined environmental policy, computer science, and GIS. During my PhD, I started discovering another emerging area – citizen science, with two main pieces of work – by Alan Irwin and Rick Bonney marking the beginning of the field in 1995 (I came across Irwin’s book while looking into public understanding of science, and learn about Bonney’s work much later). According to OED research, the use of citizen science can be traced to 1989. In short, GIScience and citizen science as a recognised terms for research areas have been around for about the same time – 25 years.

Over this period, I have experienced an inside track view of these two interdisciplinary research fields. I would not claim that I’ve been at the centres of influence of either fields, or that I’ve analysed the history of these areas in details, but I followed them close enough to draw parallels, and also to think – what does it mean to be involved in an interdisciplinary field and what make such a field successful? 

The use of terms in publications is a good indication to the interest in various academic fields. Here are two charts that tell you how GIScience grown until it stalled around 2010, and how citizen science have been quiet for a while but enjoying a very rapid growth now.

First, from Egenhofer et al. 2016 Contributions of GIScience over the Past Twenty Years, showing the total number of publications with the keywords GIS or GIScience, based on a Scopus query for the years 1991 through 2015, executed in July 2015. Notice the peak around 2009-2010.

gisciencepublications

And here is Google Trends graph for comparing GIScience and Citizen Science, showing that in the past 8 years citizen science has taken off and increased significantly more than GIScience:

gisciencecitizenscience

I think that it’s fair to say that these two fields as inherently interdisciplinary.

In GIScience, as Traynor a Williams identify already in 1995: “Off-the-shelf geographic information system software is hard to use unless you have sufficient knowledge of geography, cartography, and database management systems; are computer-literate” and to these observations we need to add statistics, algorithms development, and domain knowledge (ecology, hydrology, transport).

Citizen Science also includes merging knowledge from public engagement, education, science outreach, computer science, Human-Computer Interaction, statistics, algorithms and domain knowledge (e.g. ecology, astrophysics, life science, digital humanities, archaeology).

Both fields are more than a methodology – they are contributing to scientific research on different problems in the world, and only a very reductionist view about what they are will see them as ‘a tool’. They are more complex than that – which is why we have specific scholarship about them, periods of training, dedicated courses and books, conferences and all the rest.

A very shallow comparison will note that GIScience was born as an interdisciplinary field of study, and experience consolidation and focus early on with research agendas, core curriculum which was supposed to lead to stability and growth. This did not happen (see Patrick Rickles comments, from an interdisciplinary research perspective, on this). Take any measure that you like: size of conferences, papers. Something didn’t work. Consider the Esri UC, with its 15,000 participants who are working with GIS, yet only a handful of them seem to be happy with the identity of a GIScientists.

In contrast, Citizen Science is already attracting to its conferences audience in the many hundreds – the Citizen Science Association have 4000 (free) members, The European Citizen Science Association 180 (paid) – and that is in the first 2 years since they’ve been established. It doesn’t have an explicit research agenda, and have an emerging journal, but the field also benefits from multiple special issues – there is almost a competition among them.

As a GIScientist this is a complex, and somewhat unhappy picture. What can I offer to explain it? What are the differences between the two fields that led to the changes and what we can learn from them? It is worth exploring these questions if we want the field to flourish

Engaging with Interdisciplinary research

The wider engagement with these fields is also linked to my personal and direct engagement in GIScience research that goes beyond disciplinary boundaries. Over the years, I was also involved in about 20 multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary projects. I also found myself evaluating and funding x-disciplinary projects (where cross, inter, multi or trans  stand for x). The main observations from all these is that many times, projects that started under the interdisciplinary flag (integrating knowledge from multiple areas), ended with mostly multidisciplinary results (each discipline addressing the issue from its own point of view). However, here are nine lessons that I’ve learned, which can also help evaluating the wider fields of GIScience and citizen science.

First, Get them young & hungry – when established professors are joining an interdisciplinary project, usually they have a clear personal research agenda, and the likelihood that they will be open to radically new ideas about their area is low. You can get excellent multidisciplinary projects with experienced researchers, but it is much harder and rarer to have interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary project – there is too much to lose. That mean that early career researchers are the most suitable collaborators who can develop new directions. At the same time, in terms of job potential and publications, it is very risky for PhD students to get into interdisciplinary research as this can reduce their chances of securing an academic job. With appropriate funding (as we done in Bridging the Gaps) and specific support to people at the more secured stage of early career (after securing a lectureship/assistant professor position), we’ve seen interdisciplinary collaboration evolve.

Second, in x-disciplinary projects, you’ll find yourself being undermined, unintentionally which will hurt. Disciplines have different notion of ‘truth’ and how to get to it (in philosophy: epistemology and ontology). What is considered as an appropriate methodology (e.g. fixation with randomised control trials), how many people need to participate, how they are selected and more. When people from another discipline use these concepts to question your practice it can feel as undermining the expertise, and the disciplinary knowledge that you are offering to the project…

logo-ercThird, there are also cases of being undermined, intentionally. Interdisciplinary proposal are evaluated by experts from different fields, and no matter how much they are told to focus their comments on their discipline, they will comment on other aspects. Moreover, proposal evaluators can assess the novelty in their area, not the overall innovation, reducing the likelihood of ‘outstanding’ mark that make it more likely to get funded. For example, in an early version of what was now funded by both EPSRC and ERC, a Research Challenges Board rejected the proposal because it “seemed so high risk to us is that there are many links in the chain… is it clear that even if everything works there would be real value from these sorts of devices? You use the example that the forest people might be able to tell if there were poachers in the area. Yet can that really be shown? Do forest people understanding probabilistic reasoning? If there any evidence that illiterate people can use maps, digital or otherwise?“. It’s important to note that both ERC and the EPSRC programmes were aimed at risky, interdisciplinary projects, but in more standard programmes, it is difficult to get funded.

Fourth, look out for the disciplinary scrounger. They might not be aware that they are disciplinary scrounger, but this is how it happens: Interdisciplinary research open up new tools and methodologies and people who know how to use them for the research team as a whole. While there is a supposed shared goals that will provide benefits to all sides, a savvy researcher will identify that there is an opportunity for using resources to advance their own research in their discipline, and find ways to do that, even if there are no apparent benefits to the side that give the resources. This act is not necessarily malicious – from the researcher perspective, it is exactly a demonstration of interdisciplinary contribution.

Fifth, in an interdisciplinary research it is critical to develop a common narrative, early. As the project progresses, it will shift and change. Because of the disciplinary differences, it is very easy to diverge and work on different issues, with some relationship to the original proposal. Especially in case where the funder evaluate the project against the proposal (e.g. in Horizon 2020), it’s critical to have a common story. The project can be harmonious and show good progression, but without a common narrative that is shared across the team, there can be troubles when it come to evaluation by external people as the outputs do not all fit neatly to their idea of what the project is about. In another project, Adaptable Suburbs, we deliberately shared reading lists between teams to help understanding each other, which bring us to…

Sixth, highstreetconsider the in-built misunderstanding. Terminology is an obvious one. For Anthropology, scale, from small to large is individual, household, community – and for cartography city is small scale, while house is large scale. However, these are easy – it can take time, and long discussions to discover that you’re looking at the same thing but seeing something completely different. As Kate Jones suggested when she worked on the Successful Suburban Town Centres project. In the image above urban designers see the streets, but not the people, while human geographers who look at census data will tend to see the people, but not the urban structure that they inhibit. There are many other examples of subtle, complex and frustrating misunderstanding that happen in such projects.

Seven, there will be challenges with publications – those that are written. Publications are critical academic outputs, and important for the individuals, teams, and the project as a whole. Yet, they are never easy – different disciplines have very different practices. In some, the first position in the author list is the most important, in another, the last. Some value single author monograph (Anthropology), other conference paper with multiple authors (Computer Science). This creates tensions and a need for delicate discussions and agreement. Moreover, and linked to Six – writing joint publications is an opportunity to expose interdisciplinary misunderstanding, but that make the writing process longer.

Eight, it is important to realise that many times interdisciplinary publications will never be written  – because academic careers, promotion criteria, visibility, and recognition depends on disciplinary practices, within projects disciplinary papers and outputs are written first. The interdisciplinary outputs left to a later stage – and then the project end and they never get written. They are actually dependent on voluntary investment of multiple contributors, which make it very difficult to get them done!

Finally, nine, is the importance of coffee and lunch breaks (and going out together). Team members in interdisciplinary projects are usually coming from different departments, and it is challenging to organise a shared space. However, by putting people together – computer scientists sitting next to a geographer, designer, anthropologists – it is possible to achieve the level of trust, relationship and the development of new ideas that are needed in such projects. In ExCiteS, we have a designated ‘social officer’ for the group.

On the basis of these experiences, I’d argue that Interdisciplinarity is always hard, risky, require compromises, accommodations, listening, and making mistakes. The excitement from the outputs and outcomes does not always justify the price. Frequently, there is no follow-on project – it’s been too exhausting. The analysis that Patrick Rickles done across the literature can provide you with further information on challenges and solutions.

From projects to research fields

Considering the project level challenges, viewing interdisciplinary areas of studies emerging is especially interesting. You can notice how concepts are being argued and agreed on. You can see what is inside and what is outside, and where the boundary is drawn. You can see how methodologies, jargon, acceptable behaviour, and modes of operations get accepted or rejected – and from the inside, you can nudge the field and sometimes see the impact of your actions. Here are some observations about GIScience and citizen science evolution.

First, citizen science seem to be growing organically, without a deliberate attempt to set a research agenda, define core curriculum, or start with nationally focused research centres, in contrast to GIScience, who had all of these. There is an emergent research agenda: data quality, motivations & incentives, interaction design, management of volunteers, and more. These are created according to views of different people who join the research area, opening opportunities for new collaborations. It is noted that GIScience, in practice, allowed for many other areas to emerge – for example crowdsourcing, which was not in the last version of the research priorities that are listed on UCGIS website, and also seemed to stop doing these exercises.

Second, there is an interesting difference in inclusiveness. Although there are different variants of citizen science, across events, conferences and projects, there is an attempt to be inclusive to the different variants (e.g. volunteer computing or ecological observations) though tensions remain and need maintenance. In GIScience, there have been inclusive activities, of workshops that brought together people from Human-Computer Interaction in the late 1980s, or the excellent series of meetings about GIS and Environmental Modelling. There is clear separation, for example in spatial analysis, where different methods are now appearing in ecology, but they are not shared back with the general GIScience. It is worth considering how to make such events and consider active inclusiveness, where researchers from different areas will find their place and reasons to participate.

It might be that citizen science is also more inclusive because of the interaction with people outside academia (participants) and the need to focus on things that matter to them, whereas GIScience has largely been for/by scientists. However, citizen science gets backlash for “not doing REAL science”, but it’s still grown. Maybe, in the process of GIScience trying to validate itself, it’s cut itself off from other research areas (even though GIS use continues to grow)?

Third, there is a sharp difference in the relationship with practitioners – GIScience decided to focus on fundamental questions and laws, while citizen science is a deliberate integration between researchers (the science of citizen science) and practitioners who are running volunteering programmes. The interaction between practice and science is bringing research questions to light and provide a motivation for addressing them with interdisciplinary teams. It might be that separation between science and systems in GIScience need to be blurred a bit to open up new opportunities.
bookcoverFinally, GIScience benefited from having a disciplinary name, and attention by a growing group of researchers who are committed to the field – job titles, positions, journals and conference do matter in terms of visibility and recognition. Citizen science, on the other hand, is only now starting to have a proper home and networks. There are ongoing discussions about what it is, and not everyone in the field is using the term ‘citizen science’ or happy with it. The actual conference that led to the creation of the Citizen Science Association was titled ‘Public Participation in Scientific Research'(!). The coherence and focus on understanding how important key phrases are, more than dislike of their potential meaning is valuable for the coherence of a field and stating that you have knowledge that can be shared with others.

New areas for Interdisciplinary research

To complete this discussion, I point to the opportunities that citizen science open for interdisciplinary collaborations with GIScience – It provides examples for longevity of VGI data sources, that can be used to address different research questions. There are new questions about scales of operations and use of data from the hyper local to the global. Citizen science offer challenging datasets (complexity, ontology, heterogeneity), and also a way to address critical issues (climate change, biodiversity loss). There are also usability challenges and societal aspects.

In final account, GIScience got plenty of interdisciplinary activity in it. There are actually plenty of examples for it. In terms of ‘mojo’ as being attractive for researchers from other area to join in, there are plenty of opportunities – especially if the practice of using GIS within different research and practice problems is included in the framework of GIScience.


This post benefited from discussions and comments from Patrick Rickles, who is our local expert in GIS use in an interdisciplinary settings. You should check his work.